Help for a common source of pain, diabetic peripheral neuropathy, may come from an everyday vitamin found in sunlight and foods — vitamin D. Here’s what you should know.
What if an everyday vitamin could help manage a common kind of chronic pain? That would be wonderful news.
Many doctors are prescribing vitamin D to their patients already. But it’s possible that if you have diabetes-related pain you may need more. We also need magnesium to metabolize vitamin D, and magnesium shortages are common in people, too.
Simple blood tests can help your doctor sleuth out deficiencies that may be affecting you.
What is diabetic peripheral neuropathy?
Up to half of all people with type 2 diabetes have a condition called diabetic peripheral neuropathy (DPN), which affects small nerve fibers, including a kind of fiber that gives us the sensation of being shocked or burned, and large fibers that govern balance. You might feel weakness in your feet and hands or severe pain. Pain can trigger both depression and anxiety and interfere with sleep. Blood sugar control doesn’t minimize the pain, so it is treated with drugs, including pregabalin, duloxetine, or tapentadol.
Because type 2 diabetes is widespread, many people are at risk for this kind of pain. Some 13 percent of American adults suffer from diabetes, and scientists estimate that another 2.8 percent of the population has undiagnosed cases. Among seniors, more than a quarter have type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Early research connecting vitamin D to DPN
Seniors, who are more likely to have DPN, also tend to be low in vitamin D. In 2018 scientists showed that people with DPN were more likely to have low vitamin D levels.
In a small 2020 randomized, placebo-controlled study of patients with DPN and low vitamin D levels, a different team looked at how a vitamin D boost affected them. The volunteers reported on their pain by questionnaire and took balance tests at the beginning of the study, then received an injection of vitamin D. When they took the same tests and answered questions about pain 12 weeks later, patients felt less shock and burning sensations and did better on the balance tests.
In a meta-analysis this year, again of small studies, another group found promising results.
Why you might need more vitamin D
Your body produces a form of vitamin D when your skin drinks in sun. Ideally, you’d be outside with your skin exposed to sunshine for at least 10 minutes at mid-day.
In climates in which people don’t get much sun, researchers have found links between low vitamin D and heart trouble. For example, one study of data from nearly 1,500 Finns linked low vitamin D to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and evidence from heart ultra sounds.
We need vitamin D to build strong bones, fight infections, and regulate blood pressure and inflammation, among many other tasks. Low levels may play a role in weak muscles even if you don’t have diabetes or dementia.
Older people are more likely to run short of this vitamin, probably because we are less efficient at producing and using it with age. Can you get your vitamin D through milk, egg yolks, and salmon? Those foods will boost your intake but won’t substitute for sunlight. To match the vitamin D you’d get from 10 minutes in the summer sun, you would need to drink some 30 glasses of milk.
August 11, 2021
Janet O’Dell, RN